‘Lack of vision’ in Irish schools ICT strategy

9 Mar 2006

Leading commentators on ICT in education have hit out at what they view as a lack of vision in terms of making a serious investment in technology in schools in the Republic of Ireland. The situation is made all the more stark when investment in the Republic is contrasted with the US$100m investment being made in Northern Ireland.

Observers claim there is insufficient evidence of vision or joined-up thinking in the Irish Government’s approach to how Irish primary and secondary schools deploy ICT as part of the school curriculum as well as to how IT infrastructure is invested in, managed and supported going forward. The term most used to describe Ireland’s approach to ICT in schools is “ad hoc”.

Last year, the Minister for Education Mary Hanafin announced a €20m investment in IT equipment for schools. Prior to this, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources announced an €18m investment — mostly stumped up by the telecoms industry — to deploy broadband in schools.

Critics have claimed that the €20m investment is insufficient and doesn’t take into account the need for ongoing technical support. The €18m investment in broadband was expected to see every school in the country have broadband by September last year, the start of the school year. However, it is now envisaged the project won’t be completed until this June.

By comparison, in Northern Ireland some US$100m is being invested as part of a Classroom 2000 initiative to enable education authorities there to proceed with a 10-year plan to give all students from primary to university level access to their own PC, email address and broadband access.

The programme, run by the Western Education and Library Board, involves 900 primary and 250 post-primary schools throughout the province and serves some 350,0000 students and teachers. It comprises between 60,000 and 70,000 PCs distributed across Northern Ireland. The contract was awarded to HP, Microsoft and BT, among others, and in recent weeks leading tech firms such as Microsoft, HP, Cisco and Intel have jointly invested in an all-Ireland centre of excellence for ICT research in education that will be based at HP’s offices in Belfast.

Martin Murphy, general manager of HP Ireland, said there is a danger of a North-South digital divide emerging. “It is ironic in the sense that we in the South have spent the last decade claiming one of the primary qualities of Ireland Inc is the qualified pool of graduates we have — the profit of 20 years of investment in the education system. If we apply the same logic to this, the Irish Government needs to invest now for the Ireland of the next 20 years.

“The best way to describe the Irish Government’s investment in ICT for education is ‘piecemeal’. I don’t believe that a sufficient blueprint has been put in place. This must be a primary item on the Government’s agenda.

“The investment 20 or 30 years ago in Ireland’s education system which brought about the boom of the Nineties and today was the best money ever spent. Every schoolchild in Ireland should have access to technology. The Government must right now set itself the target of making sure that every pupil in every school in Ireland is in contact with technology.”

Seaghan Moriarty is a former primary teacher who also works in the third-level sector and who has worked as webmaster for the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) and the Irish Primary Principal’s Network. In 2004 he won the Irish Internet Association NetVisionary Award for his contribution to education. Moriarty believes: “Ireland is failing on a number of levels in terms of its investment in technology for education. There is a pure lack of vision from the Government’s point of view and there is a lack of policy on paper.

“The €20m investment is possibly enough to shore up the investment in broadband infrastucture, but the broadband infrastructure is possibly only a quarter of the challenge. In terms of hardware, there has been no money invested since 2002. There has been no money invested in software for schools. There is no money invested in technical support for these schools,” Moriarty stressed.

“94pc of Irish schoolteachers don’t use technology in their schoolwork,” he warned.

“Technology in education is a three-legged stool: you need infrastructure, you need to have technology ingrained in the curriculum and teachers need to see technology as part of their professional and personal development.”

Moriarty warned that the momentum created by the IT2000 programme for computers in schools petered out around 2001. “There’s a lot of disconnect on a number of levels. We need to see the bigger picture. All that money we are ploughing into mortgages is borrowed money for the future, basing it on our expectations to earn money on a good economy in the future. We won’t be able to participate in that economy because we won’t field the graduates in the same way we did in the 1990s.

“Not only should Irish pupils be learning technology but they should be learning through technology. The Government is doing a huge disservice to the economy by having an ad hoc vision. The technology is here and the Irish are just not prepared,” Moriarty warned.

By John Kennedy